Never has it been more important not to judge a book by its cover than with the music of Skullcrusher.
You see when you hear Skullcrusher out of context it’s easy to imagine something quite sinister. Images of a masked Scandinavian death metal band who fling fire above their heads jumped to mind. But how far from the truth this turned out to be. If you can get over this, you’ll be shocked at how different the music is to what you’re expecting. And how beautiful.
So no, Skullcrusher is not a death metal band, which may disappoint some bleary eyed heavy rock fans). It is, in fact, the performance name of American indie-folk artist Helen Ballentine. She’s a singer who, through Storm In Summer, produced one of the most impressive EP’s of 2021 and is set to win more hearts and minds late into 2022.
Upon giving Quiet the Room its first listen, you may wish to go on a brisk country walk to achieve some quiet solitude – this a debut album worth soaking in. Over the following 40 minutes, the melancholic mood of Skullcrusher’s debut can’t help but blow away the listener, stunning with both its quiet power and vulnerability: light and darkness coming together for a record full of beauty and elegance.
The October timing of the release also adds to the enjoyment. Skullcrusher’s debut has autumn vibes written all over it. Think woodland walks, warm cashmere jumpers, tartan scarves and kicking soggy, fallen leaves out your path… these tunes are dreamy and melancholic with a twinge of darkness sprinkled throughout to create a stunning 40 minute album. The music is more than a sound, it’s a late night woodland cabin mood.
On opener ‘They Quiet the Room’ rusty guitars and whispery vocals combine for the perfect curtain raiser. The warm sound and reflective lyrics (“I know you had more to say / Did you feel afraid to tell me?” asks a regretful Bellantine) form something altogether beautiful and sweet. Before long, strings and piano add an extra layer of tension to keep us on our toes.
First preview single ‘Whatever Fits Together’ was written by Bellantine “while reflecting on my past and wondering how I might begin to explain it to someone”. Her dreamy vocals are complimented by a subtle banjo riff to reflect again on mistakes and regrets of yesteryear. In the chorus, Skullcrusher asks “What do I want? / Do I want anything?”, as she tries to make sense of her growing experiences – it’s an encapsulating single which stood out as an early favourite.
Recorded at the Chicken Shack studio in Upstate New York, close to where Ballentine grew up, she admits wanting “every song to have that little twinkle, but also a sense of crumbling”. It’s this contrast which makes Quiet The Room so interesting – the music is hopeful and light for the most part, darkness never too far away from creeping through the cracks.
‘Lullaby in February’ sounds innocent on the surface, though dig a little deeper and a tale of sleeplessness and regret is revealed (“Late at night / I can’t stop picturing your face”). Before you know it, the dreamlike acoustic plucking is replaced by ominous darkness to leave us in a nightmare state. The ethereal ‘Pass Through Me’ then counters this with a sound sweet and ethereal.
On ‘Sticker’ there’s an atmospheric Sigur Ros quality, the album continuing to reach new levels of beauty, Bellantine’s voice and backing vocals are heavenly and airy. Album closer ‘You are my House’ is a final acceptance of her loneliness (“I am the letter sitting on your desk / I contain all of the loneliness / You won’t share with your friends or even your closest confidants”) and this ambient demise of the album feels appropriate.
On Quiet The Room, Skullcrusher is stuck in her own nostalgic thoughts, often unable to make sense of how she should be feeling. She reminds us how normal loneliness and regret are natural adult emotions. And yet the vulnerabilities she offers us are soothed by the often hopeful and dreamy quality of the music.
Even though expectation was high for Helen Ballentine’s debut, she’s still managed to far exceed what was expected from her with Quiet The Room. Skullcrusher has delivered a beautiful and sad record, one which deserves a place in any album of the year conversation. If you’re willing to judge the music before the name, you’re in for an absolute treat.